Romania and Egypt are two distant countries. They have many differences and many things in common as well, such as the fact that they both had revolutions against dictatorships. Romanian netizen Lavinia Dieac, who lives in Cairo, tells us more about her life in Egypt, particularly the days of the revolution.
Lavinia Dieac is a Romanian digital marketing professional, currently living in Cairo. She has been living in Egypt for the past two years ago. Lavinia likes to blog and regularly tweets about her experience as an expatriate living in Egypt. She has also had three articles published in the Egyptian English language newspaper Al Masry Al Youm.
Following is my interview with her.
Hi, can you please tell us more about yourself? What do you do? How long have you been living in Egypt? Who do you normally blog about?
Hello Tarek, it is an honour to get the chance for this interview, hello everyone. I came to Egypt more than two years ago for a three to six month internship that has become a real job since then. I work in digital marketing and I spend a big part of my time looking into the human nature and at the cultural differences between the people in this part of the world and the one I come from.
The blog started out of the will to share these experiences, so I am trying to write about issues that influence my thinking or my world view.
Have you been to different parts of Egypt? Which parts of it do you like most?
I’ve visited Siwa Oasis, White & Black Desert, Abu Simbel, Luxor, Aswan, Dahab, Ras Abu Gallum, Alexandria, North Coast, Sharm El Sheikh, Hurghada and of course the Cairo touristic places and I’ve yet to see much more.
They all offer such different things (different types of desert, oasis, temples, historic places, snorkeling and diving, sea side chilling, clubbing, fresh fish dishes, camping in the desert vs. luxurious hotels, Bedouins vs. Russians), all very enjoyable, but the most I liked was the desert and the oasis (Siwa, Black and White Desert). Actually it is hard to not include Ras Abu Gallum too.
I like them the most because they very much represent Egypt and its people now, and they are not super touristic like Sharm El Sheikh. Also, it was charming to camp in the desert over night, sleep in such openness under the clear sky, listen to the Bedouin songs, enjoy their food, tea and stories, do sand boarding, bath in the cold oasis during a super hot day and in a hot spring at night, visit the temple of Oracle of Amun Ra, see the white formations and climb the volcanic mountains, walk for an hour along the shore of the Red Sea in the shadow of the rocks of the Ras Abu Gallum National park and then snorkel to see the amazing corals.
You usually tweet about the cultural differences between your country and here in Egypt. Can you please tell us more about those differences?
This could be a long story with many examples about differences.
For me, this world here is many times upside down compared to what I’ve got to know back home: the way people live, work, sell, walk on the street, celebrate, dress, the way they relate to religion, not to mention the way they drive! And the men-women relationship is really different too!
An embarrassing moment was in my first three months since I was here before leaving to Romania for vacation I wanted to say bye to a close male colleague at work by hugging and kissing, as we do in Romania usually. He pulled himself back and kind of said “no-no”, which shocked me and embarrassed me so much. Right away I remembered a similar story shared by another foreigner and I quickly remembered that some people choose to limit the physical contact with people of the opposite gender, some of them during Ramadan only. I didn’t think it was the case with my colleague. I guess that shocked me the most, you never know who is open to this kind of interaction and who is not. This incident made me decide for a while to not even shake hands with guys any more. The decision didn’t last long though cause it is against my natural behaviour.
The gender segregation here makes everything much different than how it is in Romania. The experience of walking on the streets is greatly different. Besides the lack of side-walks and pedestrian crossings, there are the looks and the harassment. I usually like looking at people’s faces on the streets, smiling at them sometimes, but here I have to put on the bad, tough kind of face and walk straight ahead, fast to avoid looking at anyone because I most of the time find them observing me, starring, ogling or harassing. During my recent vacation in Romania I was looking at people on the streets but couldn’t find anyone looking at me as every one was minding their own business. This is funny, but it felt weird I don’t have any more the ‘attention’ I usually get on the streets here. Jokes aside, it felt well actually.
The public display of religiosity is another key difference. In Romania, religion is somewhere in the background; you don’t hear much about it; you don’t see it around too much. It never attracted my attention to it and to its insights as it did since I have been here, where I could observe it everywhere, in all aspects of life, with most of the people. It is even so embedded in the culture that some religious practices are now just cultural practices.
Then, there is the part about being late. I had meetings for which people were late even one and half hours. Imagine that! It is hard to handle it. But it is part of the Egyptian culture, as they themselves proudly say.
But at the end of the day these differences are the ones making the experience here more interesting, and nurture my self-discovery.
Sometimes you tweet about stuff like not being able to eat in public during Ramadan. And not having the choice to tell a taxi driver to switch the Quran recitation off. Is this also a part of the cultural difference? Do you think the Egyptians are more or less acceptable to other religions? Or do some Islamic traditions became a cultural part of the country, such as saying Inchallah (if God wills), you have no problem with them being used, especially that Copts do use them too?
They are part of the cultural difference, because these things define how life is here. The level of acceptance towards differences and diversity is part of how people are.
I am not sure if you ask me to compare this level between Romania and Egypt. Unfortunately in many parts of the world people’s level of acceptance towards other religions or other types of differences is not very high.
From some studies I read, youth in Romania are quite racist against Jews, Muslims, and gypsies. In Egypt, there isn’t a high level of acceptance either, in my opinion. Just the fact that it is not accepted that girls here wear short skirts or sleeveless tops on the streets says a lot about the acceptance towards diversity.
I could also notice many times double standards and hypocrisy, especially when people here say that foreigners coming to Egypt should respect the traditions and culture, but when they themselves go abroad they don’t respect the traditions and culture of the place they go to, they still keep their own and expect the foreign country to accept them.
Have you been to other countries in the Middle East other than Egypt? How different, and how similar are they to Egypt and Romania?
I have been to Lebanon before. I loved the mix of Arabic and European flavour there, and the variety: both ladies wearing veil and wearing short skirts, both places that sell alcohol or pork and ones that don’t, beautiful.
I know you refused to leave Egypt during the revolution, although some foreigners might have been afraid with all the attack the media made on them then and calling them spies? How were your feelings when Mubarak stepped down?
I did stay in Egypt all the time during revolution but strongly felt like leaving when people were divided between agreeing or not with Mubarak to stay until September and to call the protests off.
I wasn’t going to stay if Mubarak would’ve been let to stay because I didn’t trust it would be safe and also because I was feeling that I won’t be able to work with and accept people around that let go of their main goal “down with the regime”. Happily the protests continued and finally Mubarak stepped down.
I stayed in the house in down-town during all that time, for 18 days, just went out twice: once during the bloody Friday when I quickly noticed things are not alright and hurried up back home to see in 30 minutes on TV the camels and the horses attack on Tahrir (goose bumps). The second time was during a peaceful day in Tahrir.
I was following every detail on Twitter and on Al Jazeera and being very close to Tahrir I could experience the reality from my balcony too: seeing the protesters and the police up and down the surrounding streets, been hit by tear gas and been terrified by the gun shots and gas bombs (A video I shot from the balcony).
My mom would tell me over the phone to leave Egypt, and to take care of my health, to sleep and to eat well. I would assure her that I am fine, and that I am just staying in the house, following the news online and watching TV, so it is not a big deal. I didn’t realize until Mubarak stepped down, when I cried for half an hour, that I was under a big amount of stress and emotional pressure during the 18 days, so mom was right about taking care of my health. The crying was of happiness and relief, of surprise that Mubarak was finally out.
As a Romanian, you witnessed a similar revolution more than 20 years ago. And now you are living the one taking place here in Egypt. Can you please compare the two revolutions?
I was only five years old when the ’89 revolution happened in Romania, and we didn’t study much about it in school in the upcoming years, at least until 2003 when I graduated from high school. They say that the truth about what and why it happened will be released after 50 years, when no living people could be directly affected by truth any more.
In Romania, there weren’t this communication tools that Egyptians had, the turmoil started in the west of the country with a small incident in a neighbourhood and took a while to spread across the country, only some big cities were greatly involved in protests, and more than 1,000 people were shot (not commonly agreed yet who shot at people back then – the army or foreign forces).
I am no specialist in politics and history, but from my experience I can say that the two revolutions are quite different due to the foreign interests and due to the communism factor (Romania had closed borders, people had money but didn’t know what to spend it on, had to stay for hours in line to get bread, meat, milk and other commodities, sometimes not getting them even because they were finished), but alike due to the dictatorship.
The revolution ended with the Ceausescu couple being executed by the army after having a brief trial and with an immediate transition to civil rule, unlike in Egypt. The ones taking over were ex-communists indeed, and this lasted for many years with high levels of corruption.
After 1989, Romania started transforming greatly with the introduction of privatization and foreign investment. In a few years it became a country under development with lots of economical potential. There have been improvements registered since, less corruption for example, but now Romania is facing other types of problems and democracy has not really been achieved.
As a marketer, how do you view the spread of graffiti in Egyptian streets after the revolution? And don’t you consider it the revolutionaries’ way to market their ideas, and also artists’ way to market their skills? Can the same thing be applied to those musicians who used to sing in Tahrir as well?
I admire people's use of graffiti to express their revolutionary ideas, and I see it as a communication channel competing with state TV. If only we could have more and more graffiti! Besides that, it brought color to streets and improved the look of many walls.
Indeed some graffiti is very artistic, and much appreciated, but I’m not sure if the artists that made them have any consequential benefits out of it.
On the other hand, we have seen companies and media producers making use of the revolution to market their goods or movies? How do you see this?
There has been an exaggerated point of using the revolution as a marketing theme. It all became unnatural, while the graffiti and other forms of art seem always genuine and natural. Take a look at what may be the most shameless capitalization on the Egyptian Revolution: January 25 Monopoly.
One of the subjects that is being discussed a lot in Egypt is the Palestinian Israeli conflict. I know you have your own opinion about how it occupies a significant part in people’s daily discussions on and off-line. There has been demonstrations in front of the Israeli Embassy lately, add also Dr. Norman Finkelstein came to Egypt right after the revolution to give a lecture in the American University in Cairo about the same issue, which you were not very pleased with. Can you please tell us more about all this.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a very important matter, for all humans, not only for the involved parties, including Egypt, as it has a complex mix of situations that don’t respect human rights which we shouldn’t turn our views away from.
But what bothers me is to notice this naïve, deep hate towards Israel, and a naïve support for Palestine without being aware that the situation is not just black or white, and before being preoccupied with the urgent matters Egypt is going through first. It is like trying to help someone else before helping yourself first.
Egyptians can’t really help Palestinians if Egypt itself is weak. I thought it is very inappropriate to talk about Israel around 16th of May when Egypt’s situation was problematic enough to give all our attention to, instead of giving it to Finkelstein and to his speech at AUC.
It is also interesting how Egyptians choose to unite under the idea “Israel is our enemy”. I think it is a very thin line between supporting the Palestinian cause and being racist towards Israelis. I find many Egyptians that hate Israel, and they are actually racist too.
One final question, can you compare the ongoing parliamentary elections here to the ones you had in Romania right after the fall of your dictatorship? You think elections is the right thing to be done now, or are there any tips or cleansing to be done first to ensure better democracy? Did you suffer for example for the remnants of the former regime entering the the parliament after you got rid of your dictator?
First of all, I’ll repeat that ‘theoretically’ Romania is a democratic country, but on the ground democracy has not been really achieved. Romania unfortunately has been moving really slowly in the past 20 years, hasn’t achieved much and not many significant improvements can be noticed. In return, it seems that few people got really rich and politicians were corrupt while corporations benefited from Romania’s rich resources.
Secondly, of course there will be remnants of the old regime in the new corridors of power. In Romania we had it too.
I am not sure about how the electoral process in Romania went through in ’89-’90, but it is important to move fast. In Egypt there was a dictatorship (Mubarak’s) changed with another one (military); it is good to see Egyptians not settling for it! That says a lot about how they will accept things to be like in the way forward! I wish them the best with getting a civilian government as soon as possible and am keeping an eye on what they do with the country’s potential. Peace!